Jubal Brown, Operation, 1999. !0 min. Image courtesy of Vtape.
Feeling Video: Are we done with judgment? January 30 2010.
Browsing through post-Web 2.0 visual culture, I am fascinated by habits of intersubjective voyeurism and performance for the (web)camera. Virtually abundant, videographic 'Internet trash' is a viable point of entry for contemplating the politics of performing for the camera. Resonating with the bodily experimentation of early video art, the videos I selected for Feeling Video deliberately provoke emotional and corporeal affects to question the ethics of watching bizarre performance in private and public realms. More importantly, the program asks us to consider how individuals may negotiate their embodied identity with new technology.
A sublimation of internal frustration, Palestine’s physically activated performance portrays the indescribable weight of personal trauma.
Standing on the Bloor viaduct on a wintery day, the artist opens his mouth, remains still. So still.
Mark Karbusicky & Mirha-Soleil Ross
Members from the vegan community speak up on romantic needs, queer desires, and political rights in omnivorous society queer desires in this enthusiastic documentary.
7:50 (excerpt), 2009
“Performing being human”, a female protagonist acts out in the empty space of a ship deconstruction warehouse. Gender, civilization and judgment are all abandoned.
The artist silently extracts pieces of fat from his lower abdomen and destroys them.
Subject to Subject
Floored by a Black man’s foot, Joy toys with supposedly oppressive racial and gendered representations in a permissive struggle is deliberately enacted for the camera.
Feeling Video: Are you done with judgment?
“The entire edifice of new communication technology is a giant trash heap waiting to happen, a monument to the hubris of computing and the peculiar shape of digital capitalism.” (Sterne, 2007, 17)
Echoing the bodily experimentation and performing self of early video art, Internet users are turning the camera on themselves. Attracting attention, sometimes kinship, sometimes antagonism, Internet video finds unlikely, yet abundant audiences. User-generated applications from the “Web 2.0” paradigm has allowed for communication, sharing and databasing of information ad nauseum. Encounters with nonproductive social media like Vimeo, and YouTube has precipitated excruciating volumes of amateur production including confessional video blogs and revenge video. User feedback through ratings, comments, and video responses creates a personal, yet collective stream of consciousness—an endless parade of absurd amusement. Facebook, blogs, phone cameras, and livestream video contributes to our libidinal nature of viewership, thus generating more and more useless data on the Web.1 Like the co-option of video into artistic practices during its advent, both artists and users have been employing the excessive potential of the digital to tactically negotiate their identity.
What happens when devious performance is framed within the context of art and displayed publicly, online, or in a gallery? What does the deliberate performance of struggle suggest about the conditions of videomaking? I assembled this program to provoke ontological questions-to invoke the “wtf”-concerning the growing amount of bizarre exhibitionism in contemporary visual culture. I will focus on these ways of seeing in relation to reality television, amateur video, cyberculture, and the art world. To frame this matter in the broader discourse of artistic practice, I begin with Rosalind Krauss’ (1985, 52) assertion of video as a narcissistic medium for channeling immanent bodily desires that are otherwise regulated by social or institutional etiquette. Deliberate performance for the camera serves as entropic and excremental demonstration of individualism. As Georges Bataille states, to destroy, or depart from physical composure and become formless (informe) waste is to liberate the self from embodiment, to access an intellectual transcendence.2 This program provides a glimpse into strange manifestations of personhood after the writings of Bataille, who proclaimed an erotic connection between the display of destruction and death, excess and expenditure in the processes of daily living.3
Waste production in the form of expletive action represents the refusal to contain the most basic physical desires. The roaring half-naked woman in Anna Peak’s Lokhalle (2009) thrashes at wood on the floor in an abandoned warehouse. The artist describes these acts as “performing being human”. Excremental action presents itself in the protagonist’s hollering and cursing, with only the curses being legible. Enacting aggression with no explanation, her subject ineffectually destroys her environment. Throwing her wig off in the middle of the video, gender is abandoned and attention is diverted to her robust, dirt-covered body, indexical of the strength and baseness of her actions. Her performance is hyperbolic and carnal in defiance of the jarring demands of adulthood in a gendered society. Similarly accentuating internal agitation, Charlemagne Palestine’s Running Outburst (1975) approaches kinesthetic performance emphatically. Shot from waist height, the viewer assumes the position of the camera and becomes interpolated as an organ of Palestine’s enduring body. Freudian aversion underpins his camera movements as he moves around the room while droning sonorously. Eventually running, he never approaches closely enough to the pillars for our inspection of teddy bears situated at the bases. Like the unexplained fury possessed by the female subject in Lokhalle, Palestine withholds visual knowledge of understanding personal history. Trauma cannot be deconstructed or symbolized, but is conveyed through the channeling of extraneous emotion.
Conversely, Mirha-Soleil Ross and Mark Karbusicky’s G-SPrOuT! (2000) draws not upon the excremental, but rather, the romantic prospects offered by digital technology. The video begins with textual flirtation in a vegan chatroom between “TofuTits” and “Soyboy”, personas played by the artists themselves. The documentary portrays a radically sex-positive approach to the subaltern romantic needs of vegans.(Spivak 1985, 484)4 Interviews of vegans confessing their thoughts on omnivores are interspersed with footage of a role-playing and then lovemaking transsexual couple. The discussion openly uncovers multiple layers of queerness, illustrating the political act of choosing a partner who shares the same attitudes of animal-free consumption. “Let’s just say, if you’re not vegetarian, then I won’t swallow,” one interviewee snickers. “There’s a scent, almost a spice to vegetarians…and its not pleasant. I’m not saying meat eaters are stinky awful people by any means, but on an intimate level…there’s something there that I’m not comfortable about,” confesses another interviewee. Discussion of sex meshes with the politics to protest not only a morally questionable meat industry but also hetero-normative social values. The politicizing of pleasure and ethics is solidified by TofuTits’ textual proclamation, “It’s my own special spot, I call it my G-SPrOuT!”
Unlike the positive coupling of desire with consumption in G-SPrOuT!, Subject to Subject (2006) toys with the sexually dishonorable. Jesika Joy explores erotic danger in the suspension of disbelief in her role as a docile White female subject. A Black man’s foot forcefully rolls over her ace and chest as she wriggles and moans on the floor in simulation of an ambiguously violent, yet permissive struggle. The camera is implicated in relations of gazing that Joy playfully subverts by conflating oppressive gender and racial representations in her performance. From the point of view of the standing male subject, the camera’s gaze on Joy’s face engenders quasi-pornographic references in his anonymous presence behind the lens. Fatiguing repetition of struggle teases, yet debunks the notion of gendered oppression through the revealing of her unrestrained hands, which allude to her agency. Her performance is reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s Pryings (1971), where feminist critique of female submission is enacted through deliberate abuse of the female subject. However, enjoyment is demonstrated by Joy’s willful sucking of the camera operator’s big toe. Like its use in Running Outburst, the camera enables the orchestration and witnessing of the private; had these videos not been captured, such intimate expressions would not reveal themselves in public consciousness.
As if at war, acts of strangeness render the performing body a carnivalesque theatre in which all sources of stigmatized social cruelty are played out. In Operation (1999), Jubal Brown directs the camera at his abdomen and silently extracts small pieces of fat from underneath his ribcage. The bleeding orifice is an uncanny reminder of the pain experienced in body modification for the sake of beauty. A brief appearance of a COSMO magazine in the background suggests his opposition to physical idealism. Much like the simulacral assault in his hour-long videocollage TOTAL WAR (2008), Brown’s visceral videography would be regarded by Jean Baudrillard as spectacular overkill. The assumption that our brains will be hypertrophically overfed with images of horror to the point of desensitization stops short of discovering video’s ethical and political determinants.5 My interest is to uncover the liminal relationship between the performance of confrontational subject matter and social affect. I insist on exploring the relationship of the audience to the performer, to foster engagement with images that surpass aesthetic or representational judgment (Deleuze 1997, 130).
Assembling his formless extractions onto a log that he incinerates, Brown takes it upon himself to completely destroy subcutaneous fat on his body. In contrast to hegemonic notions of self-care and life preservation, the terror of self-harm bars no reference to social belonging or order. By elevating the extent to which it is socially acceptable to modify one’s own body, Brown performs deleterious acts on himself to assert his separation from society. Yet his work relies on our sadistic attention to question ethics of self-care and bodily ownership. If tracing the alienated self in artmaking is to recognize one’s own monstrosity, Brown demonstrates pain to “demonstrify” himself (Nancy 1996, 78). By performing self-work through surgical operation, Brown attempts to reclaim personal sovereignty over his embodied identity in defiance of institutional regulation. Judgment becomes a secondary concern to the precariousness of performing bodies, even if observes may watch irresponsibily, distanciated by the safety of the screen.
Networked media like TV and the Internet are sources for the continuous streaming of shameful entertainment basied in reality—also known as “humilitainment” (Siggins 2005). The performance of failure entices our appetite for the comic relief of schadenfreude (Adorno 1969, 140). In Hardcore Superstar (2003), Gale Allen and Karilynn Ming Ho compete to chug a gallon of homogenized milk along to an upbeat soundtrack of the same name. Feeling humored at expense of their struggle defers obligation to identity with their bodies in the throws of perpetual projectile vomiting. Like Peak’s work, Allen and Ho attempt to overturn existing regimes of gender representation. They appropriate machismo challenges originating in Camp Kill Yourself and Jackass to subvert the aesthetics of youth cult reality television and Internet pranks. Beyond commentary on feminized practices of bulimia, their performance in the city centre confuses judgment of vomiting in public spaces. They present an unapologetic performance of metaphorical bulimia pertaining to cultural consumption. As an involuntary process, vomiting is supposedly beneficial to our wellbeing as it eliminates harmful toxins from the body. The act of uselessly expelling ingested food demonstrates a lack of physical control—in which Allen and Ho are not afraid to display. Milk soils their clothes and hits the ground as they relentlessly chug, heave, and vomit. Literally emptied, the artists clink their milk bottles at the end in celebration of undertaking the ridiculous challenge. Their feat is now vacant of meaning: the evidence is all over the ground.
Extending the trope of physical wastefulness, Paul Couillard’s REST (2006) encapsulates the death drive to merge with nature and disappear. Externalization of the internal conveys the need to escape bodily containment, to transcend physical experience and access spiritual tranquility. Standing on one of the most popular sites for suicide in Ontario, the Bloor Viaduct, Couillard turns his body into a temporary monument that is drained of affect and inert to external forces, yet internally anxious. As if exclaiming with no sound, he tacitly opens his mouth on a wintery day in a stoic expression of grief, allowing unbearable weather to consume him. Over time, frost aggregates on his face, nose and tongue. As if his internal organs are decaying or thawing, saliva ebbs from his mouth, and eventually freezes into a pool of ice on the ground. His unaffecting stasis and excretion on video transcribes durational endurance to ephemeral evidence. Resembling the trickle of blood in Brown’s Operation, the slow marking of the body attests to the limits of the artist’s agency over physical perception. Against nature, Couillard’s static performance strives for minimal exertion of the embodied self and a masochistic rigidity of the total physical and mental stasis.
Should we shun videos of self-inflicted cruelty? If self-performed heinousness reveals intimate desires that target the corporeal, what makes the valuation of these videos so different from, those of war and news violence? Does our pathos end at judging the demonstration of an unbecoming self? Sights of discomfort bear upon our visuality as bodily memory in both the viewer and performer. The visceral affect of painful performance is not only haptic, but also emotional. Voyeuristic endurance of the unimaginable experience of such acts allows the suturing of the visual to the cognitive. Aside from private viewing on a desktop interface, video screenings in artistic contexts are shared experiences that provoke discussion about the taboo of watching anti-social performance. The video screen becomes a site of emergence that opens a contemplative space for apprehending precarity and identity (Sontag 118; Butler 2009, 2). The appeals of anti-social video lie at these empathic junctures of comedy, disavowal, disgust and unimaginability. My curatorial desires flirt with displaying the private in a public context, to combine the useful and useless effects of technological expenditure on human desires. Watching and performing the trivial serves as a cathartic process for the videomaker and the viewer to transcend moral righteousness, to do away with judgment. Perhaps we might reconsider our complicity in perpetuating a waste-based economy of voyeurism and develop critical discourse on how to feel video.
1 I extend Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein’s idea of data trash, or the hyper-production of information to argue that such “Internet trash” consists of digital debris from memes, quiz results, fan art, viral ads to humiliation photos and even pedophilia.
2 Art historians Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois interpret Bataille’s informe as an “operation” subverting the formal analysis of twentieth century art.
3 Information theorist Eugene Thacker (1998) applies Bataille’s notion of technological excess and expenditure invested in web pornography production to explain how digital interactions are excremental.
4 In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak questions whether subaltern populations have an authentic representational visibility in society. In G-SPrOuT!, members of the community are able to speak for themselves in an empowered fashion.
5 I believe this viewpoint has contributed to a redundant, dead-end analysis of visual culture and neglects the pleasures of wasteful mass (Internet) culture that audiences continue to consume.
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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. 1985. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Thacker, Eugene. “Can the Digital become Excremental? –Bataille, Expenditure, and Web Pornography” Look to the East, 1998. Da-da-Net “Trash Art” Festival. Media Art Lab.